Changes to Washington State University housing agreements are raising concerns, particularly an addendum stating student residents will not be refunded if they’re asked to vacate early in the semester because of COVID-19.
According to an email sent to WSU students Tuesday, those who wish to live on campus for the semester must submit a signed addendum saying they cannot cancel housing and dining contracts because of changes in university operations resulting from COVID-19. The wording of the agreement states this remains true if students are required to vacate early and are not provided with alternative housing.
WSU spokesman Phil Weiler said he is sympathetic that the addendum could put parents and students in a difficult position but it is necessary for the university to be able to continue to provide services. He said WSU did issue refunds when classes were moved online in the middle of the spring 2020 semester, which sapped about $11 million from auxiliary reserves and the department stands to lose out on millions more in the coming semester.
“We will probably be losing somewhere in the neighborhood of about $20 million in revenues from our housing services because we’re having to reduce the number of students we’re going to have on campus,” Weiler said. “We normally have about 6,200 students and we’re going to be somewhere below 4,000 – there really isn’t any place to give.”
Weiler said student housing falls under auxiliary services, which means it cannot be supported through taxpayer revenues. This means expenses like maintenance and upkeep and any refunds are financed with money gathered through student housing and related fees.
“The cost of housing is what it costs us to provide that housing,” Weiler said.
However, western Washington lawyer Joe Bennett, whose niece is enrolled to attend WSU as a freshman in the fall, called the addendum “outrageous.” Bennett said because freshmen are required to stay on campus for their first year of college unless they are approved for a waiver, parents and students have little choice but to sign.
“To confront people with this in July, and their only recourse is to appeal for a waiver and then somehow find rental housing between now and the start of fall classes is ridiculous,” he said.
He said WSU could be sued if they ever tried to enforce the addendum, and he doubted the amended contract would hold up in court. He said it is particularly unfair to parents who are already struggling to pay for college.
“My niece and her parents are really worried about this because they’re relying on student financial aid and this is a huge expense,” Bennett said. “If their daughter is sent home and still has to pay for room and board which she’s not utilizing, that puts a huge economic burden on them.”
Weiler said the last thing university leaders want to do is create financial barriers for students to attend college but these are the choices they are left with as the pandemic continues to cause uncertainty at every level. He noted there is no guarantee it will be necessary for students to be sent home in the middle of the fall semester.
“We just ask that they understand that we’re only charging the amount that is required for us to be able to provide the level of housing that they expect us to provide, it’s not that we’re generating any kind of surplus profit,” he added. “If we had the ability, financially to do it, we would have because we exist to provide an education to students, anything that gets in the way of that is a problem for us.”